A fairly original complaint about Mass Effect 3’s endings

[Excerpt redacted for spoilers]


If you don’t know me, Hi! I’m a big fan of the Mass Effect video game series. I love the universe, the storytelling, the characters, and especially the fact that you can deeply explore counterfactuals for every moral/philosophical decision you make in the games. I have been thinking of Mass Effect especially often since the release date of the fourth game, Mass Effect Andromeda, was announced (March 21!).

I have seen this trailer^ roughly a million times since it was released a week ago.

Because the events of ME1-3 massively affected the entire Milky Way Galaxy (:P), the next game takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy. In fact, one of the possible endings of Mass Effect 3 irreversibly changes every single aspect of Milky Way. I will now opine about how that option does not make sense.

***SPOILERS for all original Mass Effect games AHEAD***

Many, many, many fanboys were upset with the endings because they were too formulaic.


And, to be fair…

I am not bothered (at least not as much as the rest of the fans) by the superficial resemblance between all the different endings. I think this is all happening in Shepard’s head anyway (“Indoctrination Theory”). But the Synthesis ending makes no sense on any level. You may ask, “Aren’t they all pretty fantastical?” Yes, but Control and Destroy are consistent with the space magic that we’ve been learning about up until the game’s climax.

Throughout the game we are learning about the Crucible and that it’s a massive source of energy that can, with the Catalyst, be precision-directed against the Reapers. When we find out the Catalyst is the Citadel, it makes sense because we already know that Citadel and the Reapers are intimately connected. It even made sense to view the Citadel as controlling the Reapers in retrospect. So when you get to the starchild, he presents two options: 1. You have passed the test, and now you can control the Reapers instead of him, or 2. you can send the order to Destroy them and the Citadel and the Mass Relays, which makes sense because they are all part of the same network (although he claims this would destroy all advanced technology, too).

Then, with sufficient Galactic Readiness, you get the Synthesis option. The game begs you to choose the Synthesis option, both through the starchild’s exhortations and the fact that no one but you has to die to achieve it (EDI and the Geth can live). The starchild suggests that this is a new possibility that has simply never been available until now, but it WILL solve the values alignment problem.

There are two problems with Synthesis:

1. It wouldn’t preclude the possibility of developing new AI– will it be impossible to make new machines after the Synthesis? If not, then won’t they just run into the same problem eventually given enough time? At least they won’t have the Reapers trying to kill every advanced organic indiscriminately over it, so it’s a better choice for Shepard than the status quo, but how could the starchild think that this is a lasting solution to the problem it was created to solve?

2. It makes no goddamn sense. How can “organic essence” be distributed and worked into machines? How can machine essence be incorporated into all organic beings? For one thing, these “essences” are not uniform among organics or AIs. The Krogan have values that pose a threat to the rest of the galaxy. There is no special sauce in organics that synthetics can’t attain, which means an AI can be fully sapient and become a real person. The Geth can be cooperative, more so than their organic creators. EDI can grow into personhood. This is a major theme of the third game. For another thing, code and DNA aren’t fully analogous. It would make more sense to say organic nervous systems were re-wired, but even plants get the machine essence infusion, as we see from the ending cutscene. The overall implication is that organics and synthetics will understand each other because they will become each other, but weren’t they all just a kind of machine to begin with? What is this sudden uniformity of experience by platform???

With Control and Destroy, there is a mechanism laid out for how they would work. Granted, it is fantastical, but it is within the limits previously established in the game. Synthesis is totally off-the-wall with respect to everything Shepard should know. I guess you could aruge that Synthesis is about aligning the values problem in the heads of all the living sapients, synthetic and organic, so that they will never make misaligned intelligences in the future. That would be all well and good if every being wasn’t literally rippling like a glittery circuitboard.

It is clearly shown that Synthesis is not a symbolic synthesizing of interests by way of merging systems of thought and value. It is a literal synthesis of the bodies of extant intelligences, organic and synthetic.


My gripe probably has more to do with my rejection of elan vital than the internal consistency of the Mass Effect space magic. To be fair, the Mass Effect series up until ME3’s endings never clearly rejects the idea of the “spark of life” or “vital essence,” but I always got the feeling that it did. The first Mass Effect seems to take place in a world where most educated people are comfortable with a mechanistic universe, exploring the possibilities of existence and transcendance with open minds. The idea that distinct organic and synthetic “essences” would turn out to be real and could be merged is, to me, very contrary to earlier themes of the game.

I’m not saying the Synthesis ending is a bad ending or doesn’t belong in the game. On the Indoctrination Theory, it makes sense that Shepard’s Reaper-inspired fever dream is an impossible fairy tale where the values problem is definitively solved without any more bloodshed. The starchild wants you to hesitate to Destroy the Reapers for fear of killing EDI, the Geth, and your cyborg self. In all likelihood, Destroy is your only real choice and the other two are just succumbing to Indoctrination in one form or another.

Synthesis is more appealing to Shepard’s idealism because it means mutual understanding (even though the Control ending has Shepard guiding the Reapers toward benevolent rule, there is still a gulf of incomprehension between the Reapers and the species of the Milky Way). To me, the strongest direct evidence that the Indoctrination Theory is canon is the fact that Destroy option is presented in red, the traditional Renegade color. Control and Synthesis are presented as more compassionate, open-minded endings. The Paragon part of Shepard that resists accepting irreconcilable conflicts of interests is being manipulated. I think the strongest evidence of Indocrination Theory period is that Saren was convinced of the same synthesis solution by the end of Mass Effect 1. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Synthesis is the wrong solution– it could just be that organics are ignorantly prejudiced against their own transcendence– but it is highly suggestive that Synthesis only seems like a good idea to the Indoctrinated.

Whether my criticism of the Synthesis ending is ultiamtely a criticism of poor writing or a subtle insight into the Reapers devious tricks and Shepard’s psyche as revealed by her Indoctrination-fueled dream, I stand by my claim that it makes no sense with respect to the rest of the series.

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